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The stretch of the Hudson River that flows past New York City is polluted. Its fish are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and its banks are littered with filth. Its few human visitors do not frequent the Miramichi, nor are they familiar with the Gaspé. But the Hudson is a five-minute walk from my apartment on 112th Street in Manhattan, and I have learned to throw flies into its thickness.
On an evening I usually take a dozen or so stripers and snappers or baby blue-fish, but occasionally the river whisks me beyond that, directly to Valhalla. As it did one Saturday in late September.
With only three hours before dark, I braved the traffic of the West Side Highway, strung my rod and began to make preliminary casts into the river. My 116th Street beat is a rocky stretch of bank that extends two blocks to a concrete sewer outlet on the left and eight blocks to the right to the bay south of 125th Street. The bank is strewn with man-size rocks, placed there as both highway support and river curb, and the water drops gradually to 30 feet, where stripers and bait-fish cruise. At low tide, the slimy rocks are laden with assorted debris.
I have the 116th Street beat memorized. The boulder with the blue paint. The flat sitting rock where I rest occasionally. The hole with the cable growing from it. The concrete sewage outlet below, and the three sewage pipes above. The tiny "driftwood beach" that I sometimes comb. And the standing rocks that I jump to and from.
I have some of the river's hazards conquered (I hate to say "licked"). Backcasting between traffic. Double-hauling past flotsam. Cleaning my line on every 10th cast.
And I know the river's rhythms. High tide at my beat is 2½ hours later than at the Battery. Change of current takes three hours. Sewage flows often—but not always. Dusk and dawn are the best times, regardless of the tides—unless dead low is combined with a full sewage flow. Then I wouldn't even stick a poacher's line in the river.
That September evening my first casts were downstream, parallel-to-the-bank 50-footers. I was darting a bright weighted streamer—a No. 2 hook with a lot of lead, tinsel and white hair—on a 12-foot leader with a four-pound tip on a sinking line. I retrieved the fly along the rocks as fast as I could yank it.
After five minutes of no fish, I opened my duffel and inflated my raft. Eight minutes of foot-pumping was all it took. A $20 Macy's job, it was similar to the one I used during my school years in North Carolina for floating streams and farm ponds. This one, though, was for the Hudson, for the out-of-casting-distance schools of snappers and stripers that are common to the river. No oars, just a sculling paddle, but with it you can go faster than with oars if you paddle right.
The vinyl raft was large and firm, each of its three compartments permeated with the smell of the Hudson. I was now ready for a quick takeoff if far-off stripers were sighted. Until then I would fish the shoreline boulders.
The river was in good condition. The incoming tide, still an hour from high, was clean and relatively free of debris. I say relatively because there is always garbage floating along the banks of the Hudson in Manhattan. Some days it is so bad that it's impossible to retrieve an ungarnished fly. When the tide is dead low and the sewage outlets are active, the water is filled with floating and half-floating objects of every description. The visibility is down to zero and the smell is not pleasant. But that day no sewage was issuing from the outlets and the flotsam was minimal.